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by Jeff Commings

July 23, 2021

The three-time Olympic gold medalist offers tips on swimming backstroke

Ryan Murphy has been at or near the top of the world rankings in both backstroke events since 2014, cementing his place as one of history’s best when he won the 100 and 200 backstroke at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

Murphy is set to defend his backstroke Olympic titles in Tokyo and help keep the American winning streak intact in the 4x100 medley relay. The world record–holder in the 100 backstroke, Murphy possesses a near-perfect technique and natural feel for the water. Many commentators say that Murphy often looks like he’s swimming with ease each time he races.

Of course, that isn’t the case, as it takes a lot of work and skill to become the fastest 100 backstroker in history, and to maintain a high level of performance through two Olympic cycles. Murphy offers some tips on making your backstroke as fluid as his always seems to appear.

Find Your Best Underwater Kick Rhythm

Murphy spends a lot of time perfecting his underwater kicks, which will comprise 30 percent of his long course backstroke races. If you watch any of his races, you might see him flip well behind a leader but come to the surface with the lead thanks to strong dolphin kicks.

“I think the key with underwater dolphin kick is keeping the rhythm,” Murphy says. Though the underwater kicking rhythm might vary depending on the length of the race, Murphy says, it’s important to work on finding the right tempo in a practice environment so it’s easy to use it in a race.

Murphy likes a set of 8 x 25s where he starts with “a steady underwater tempo with bigger amplitude, and as you move through those eight, you want to tighten that amplitude to keep the kicks tighter and speed up the rhythm.” If you know how far you’ll kick underwater in a backstroke race, do underwater kicks to that point in the pool with a coach timing you. By the end of the set, you should be able to determine which tempo gets you to the same spot in the fastest time and which one feels the most efficient.

Use Your Core

Though your legs are an important component of backstroke, Murphy contends that using your body’s core is crucial to smoother backstroke.

“I think the core is really important,” he says. “So doing a lot of abdominal exercises so you can hold yourself up in the water using your core is something I find really crucial.”

This may be the key to understanding why Murphy’s backstroke looks so effortless. Other swimmers might be overusing their legs to maintain buoyancy, but Murphy is using his abdominal muscles to keep him surfing on the surface. A series of great core exercises in the gym could aid in better underwater dolphin kicks.

Don’t Overdo Backstroke Training

Although Murphy almost always races backstroke exclusively at the international level, he doesn’t do backstroke for more than half of his workouts. This helps him have some variety in his workouts.

“In a typical week, I like to mix up the strokes a lot,” he says. “I don’t go above 2,500 yards of backstroke in a practice. But I’m typically hitting 5,000-6,000 in a practice, so I am mixing up the strokes a lot.”


  • Technique and Training


  • Backstroke
  • Olympians